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Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Part II) (Review Thursday #4)

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[For my review of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG) Part I, click here.]

Having placed Paul within his Jewish, Greek, and Roman contexts in Part I of PFG, N. T. Wright discusses Paul’s worldview in Part II before moving onto Paul’s Theology in Part III. To Wright, four basic components comprise Paul’s worldview: praxis, symbol, story, and question. Since these worldview elements are the subject of PFG Part II, Wright’s treatment of them is the subject of this review.

In chapter 6, Wright discusses praxis and symbol together because “in Paul’s day praxis was symbol, and symbol praxis” (353). What does Wright mean, then, by the combined term, “symbolic praxis”? “The point about symbols [and thus about symbolic praxis],” Wright writes in the next paragraph, “is that they are everyday things that carry more than everyday meanings.” The first part of chapter 6 after its introduction focuses on the symbolic praxes of Judaism, Greek culture, and the Roman empire. This discussion was helpful, especially its discussion of Judaism. Interestingly, Wright argues that Paul like his fellow Jews expanded the land promise God made to Abraham to encompass the entire cosmos (366-367). Fair enough. But as the speakers at Chosen People Ministries’ 2013 conference, The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, maintained in their presentations, enlarging the original promise does not make the original promise null and void. Ethnic Israel still has a special place within God’s plan for the world, as Paul himself (contrary to Wright) upholds. As for Paul’s uniquely Christian symbolic praxis, Wright rightfully emphasizes the two ordinances (though he calls them “sacraments”), baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Wright’s lengthy discussion of baptism (417-427) is helpful for its emphasis on baptism as

community-marking symbol, which the individual then receives, not first and foremost as a statement about him- or herself, but as a statement which says, “This is who we are.” (421, italics in original)

Nevertheless, Wright wrongly affirms that while baptism’s “primary point … is not so much ‘that it does something to the individual,’ … it does” (426). Wright, along with other sacramentalists (pro-infant baptizers), misunderstands baptism to have a grace-imparting effect, when really it functions as a symbolic re-enactment of the new birth. Although Wright discusses Col. 2:12, which teaches this reality about baptism, he allows his prior convictions about baptism to trump the plain reading of the text. I do not, however, want to end my discussion of chapter 6 negatively. Wright’s brief discussion on suffering (431-436) is excellent; he even refers to suffering as “the final main category of [Paul’s] praxis” (431). Most edifying is Wright’s statement concerning 2 Cor. 12:7-10 — “Exactly in line with the redefinition of power and authority in Mark 10.25-45, Paul believes that apostolic life consists not only in telling people about the dying and rising of the Messiah, but also in going through the process oneself” (433). This is a truth of which I constantly need reminding. I hope quoting it here will help you, as well. This chapter on Paul’s symbolic praxis was thus largely helpful.

Chapter 7 is devoted to the story behind Paul’s worldview. “Story” seems to be one of Wright’s favorite subjects, and he tries to set himself apart by making the debate over Old and New Perspectives on Paul about “whether the underlying narrative which we have seen to be so powerful for so many (not all) Jews in Paul’s day was taken over, modified or simply abandoned” (460). Wright here seems to be setting up a straw man. Although he accuses Old Perspective scholars of making Paul “ditch everything about his previous worldview, theology and culture,” I can think of two Old Perspective (if I must use labels) scholars whom I deeply respect who are guilty of no such crime. Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner’s recent biblical theology, The King in His Beauty, is unapologetically narratival, and Schreiner argues that Paul and the other New Testament writers viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament narrative. Similarly, Dr. James Hamilton in “The Skull-Crushing Seed of the Woman,” which I have reviewed, argues that the Old Testament as a whole is a messianic document whose hope Jesus fulfills. The main argument of chapter 7 is Wright’s construal of Paul’s underlying worldview narrative. From the largest perspective, Paul’s narrative is about God and creation (475-485) — no quibbles there. The more Wright zoomed in, however, the more I found with which to disagree. Zooming into humanity (485-494), Wright sets up his too-heavily-depended-on reconstruction of the story of Israel (495-505). The main problem with Wright’s Israel narrative is his repeated assertion that the story of Israel is “the story of God’s people, of Abraham’s people, as the people through whom the creator was intending to rescue his creation” (495, italics in original). This, as I mentioned in my review of Part I, overreaches the biblical evidence. Biblically, God always intended to rescue his creation (and his people – who in Adam were already sinful!) through the Messiah Jesus, who, yes, admittedly sprang from Israel, from Abraham. But God’s plan was never for corporate Israel to rescue creation but for Israel’s representative (himself by human birth an Israelite), Jesus, to rescue creation. Zooming in even closer to the core of the narrative is Wright’s discussion of Torah (505-516). This helped temper some of Wright’s more extreme statements regarding Israel, but he seemed to confuse (as Denny Burk has argued elsewhere in another context) the meaning with the implication of “righteousness.” Wright consistently renders “righteousness” in Paul’s writings as “covenant membership.” Membership in the people of God, however, is not what righteousness means but what righteousness results in. This chapter’s story concludes with a discussion of Jesus, which I was glad to see included a paragraph (but only a paragraph!?) on the fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection frees us from our imprisonment to sin (518-519). Thus, while there are significant flaws with Wright’s retelling of Paul’s worldview story (I agree more with Schreiner’s and Hamilton’s interpretations), it was nevertheless edifying.

In chapter 8, Wright discusses how Paul’s worldview addresses five of the six worldview analysis questions (because the sixth, “why?” “will take [Paul], and us, from worldview to theology” [538]).

  1. Who are we? Wright’s understanding of Paul’s answer to this question is rather good: “We are the Messiah’s people, defied by our membership ‘in’ him, marked out by our sharing of his pistis, celebrating our status as having died and been raised ‘with’ him, living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” (544). Of course, there is the troubling notion of what “sharing Jesus’ faith” means (which will come out fully in Part III), as well as a continued emphasis on the Israel story, Wright’s understanding of which I have already critiqued above.
  2. Where are we? Wright’s answer is the standard Christian answer: We live in the time when Jesus has already inaugurated God’s kingdom without yet consummating God’s kingdom. (Wright already answered this question in short form by saying that we are “living in the ‘age to come’ which he has inaugurated” above.)
  3. What’s wrong? Death — which is a right answer but not the best answer. Death is the result of sin. Sin is the ultimate problem. Here I (and Paul!) disagree with Wright.
  4. What’s the solution? The resurrection from the dead, which Jesus will accomplish at his second coming on the basis of his own resurrection from the dead in his first coming. Again, this right solution points beyond the problem of death to the larger problem of sin. The reason we won’t die in our resurrection bodies is because death itself will be destroyed by virtue of the new heavens and the new earth being free from the very presence of sin.
  5. What time is it? We live now in “messianic time, a new sort of time” (558, italics in original). What does Wright mean? “Maturity lies in the celebration of messianic time within the muddle and mystery of the present age” (562). To use Paul’s clearer language: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4-5). We have spiritually died and spiritually been raised with Christ, which our baptism declares, and until he returns to resurrect our bodies we strive to live in the newness of life his resurrection has given us by faith.

To conclude, I reiterate a point from my review of Part I: as a historian, Wright is flawless, and flaws his appear only as we move from history to theology (and in this section, in worldview analysis). Almost halfway through Part III, I can say that the mixed bag of good and bad theological points only grows from here, but Wright’s book is proving to be a profitable read, as Schreiner and Hamilton have found to be the case with his earlier works, which I myself haven’t read. The most helpful takeaway from Part II, I believe, is this: Wright rightly emphasizes the importance of Paul’s (Christian) worldview, and it is important for all of us Christians to have a worldview based on the Bible that interacts with the worldviews around us in our broader culture. I hope to use Wright’s discussion of Paul’s worldview in Part II of Paul and the Faithfulness of God to help me refine and articulate better my own worldview, which I pray is as close to Paul’s as possible.

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